Here’s a question I keep bumping up against, especially in Harry Potter discussions I’ve had online: What moral responsibility, if any, does an author of children’s books have toward her audience?
I maintain that writing for children entails a greater responsibility than writing for adults. I am certain that in part this attitude comes from Dr. Cherie Clodfelter of the Education Department of the University of Dallas. I didn’t do especially well in her children’s lit class. I was more interested in enjoying the books than in the educational aspects that she stressed. Still, many of the lessons must have sunk in. Dr. Clodfelter abhorred books that were poorly written and books that taught bad lessons.
I feel very strongly that when you write for children, even the lightest and fluffiest of kiddie lit, you are taking up a grave matter: the formation of souls is in your hands.
We are shaped by the company we keep. And for many children the books they read are just as influential and character-forming as the children they play with. If you write for this audience, you are automatically acting as a teacher, whether you intend to take that role upon yourself or not.
Of course, the major qualifier in this argument is that parents are always the primary teachers of their children and bear the ultimate responsibility for what their children read and who their children spend time with. But most parents have an implicit, if undeserved, trust in those who write children’s books, just as they trust teachers and the school system. It’s definitely naive and a responsible parent will not trust that just because a book is written for children it will therefore be healthy and nourishing for children. But don’t the writers and publishers bear some part of the weight when books marketed for children are poisonous to their imaginations?
I don’t want the major thrust of this post to be Harry Potter; but I have to admit that’s what sparked this train of thought. And especially this old interview in Time magazine with J. K. Rowling. I found the following passage particularly disturbing in light of this conviction:
And unlike Lewis, whose books are drenched in theology, Rowling refuses to view herself as a moral educator to the millions of children who read her books. “I don’t think that it’s at all healthy for the work for me to think in those terms. So I don’t,” she says. “I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them? Or, What would it be good for them to find out here?”
To give her the benefit of the doubt, it would be true for any artist to say that her primary concern must be for the integrity of the art itself. It would warp the gift she has been given were she to force the story to become some sort of moralistic or pious tale. I’ve seen plenty of bad “Christian” fiction that does exactly that. And maybe that’s what she’s driving at. And yet, I get the feeling that she has a bit too much concern for subverting the fantasy genre, as she said elsewhere in the interview and too much disdain for Tolkien and Lewis’s brand of fiction. She’s seems to be thumbing her nose at the idea that what she writes may have some sort of effect on the moral life of children. And if that’s truly the case, then it makes me sad. If writers won’t assume that mantle of moral educator and if parents also abdicate their responsibilities, then who is teaching our children? What are they learning? And where is our hope for the future?
I want to make it clear that the primary themes of Rowling’s work are positive: love and self-sacrifice. There is much that is praiseworthy in Harry Potter and many of her critics wrongly overlook those positive features. But in my opinion the works are not flawless and some of the flaws that I see lead me to wonder if Rowling errs on the side of having too little regard for the effect her works might have on the moral formation of her young readers. I’d prefer to see balanced discussions in which people are able to admit both the positive and negative aspects of the stories. That’s what makes for interesting and worthwhile literary criticism and just good conversation.
The root of my quibbles with the series is probably that the Harry Potter universe does not have a Catholic or even a Christian cosmology. It’s not a fatal flaw; but it does mean that they are not on my most desirable list. With my kids I plan to threat the books as I would any secular books. They need more caution because the elements of good and evil are mixed up in a way that may be confusing for those readers who are still developing their moral compass.